Site icon Pratyush Pandey

Matters of Consequence

The Little Prince is a very small book, and a great one.

It’s a children’s book meant for grown-ups, especially those who don’t remember that they were once little. This is a book about two things – matters of consequence, and taming – which are actually the same thing.

Matters of Consequence

Consequence means, or is taken to mean, ‘importance’.

It’s easy to get lost in matters of consequence. And it’s not wrong either because if nothing was of consequence then you would have no reason to ever care about anything. An easy path to nihilism.

In some ways, this is what it usually means to be a ‘grown-up’ – that you now focus on matters of consequence – work, money, status, power and the rest of it. The implication is that you’re supposed to care about something because it’s a matter of consequence.

It’s obvious that you’ll run into the old Socratic problem – are things good because the gods declare they ought to be done, or do the gods declare you ought to do them because they’re good? So do you care about things because they’re matters of consequence, or are they matters of consequence because you care about them?

In other words, are there objective things that are ‘important’ or ‘good’, or is it subjective? If it’s the former, if you care because you’ve been told they’re matters of consequence, if you believe things are good because some authority’s declared them to be, you let others choose for you – you outsource your thinking to someone.

Put like that, this sounds like a pretty stupid thing to do, and I wouldn’t recommend it, but you could make a case for it. If you have a low opinion of yourself – so you think you can’t figure out what’s of consequence – it could make sense to let someone decide for you. Or if you’ve got a really high opinion of someone else.

On the other hand, if I claim that matters of consequence are whatever I care about, it means I have to decide what I want to care about, and I can’t blame anyone else for those decisions.

What is Special

Imagine yourself as a Little Prince from another planet deeply in love with a small rose, the only one of its kind on his planet.

What if you now come across a field with ten thousand such roses, all identical to yours? You’d probably start to wonder – just what is so special about your flower?

I could find a million of them, just as pretty or maybe even more so. Your flower is worthless, a commodity no different from others of the same type, easily replaceable. It’s the same for anything you choose – a flower, a pet cat, a car, and perhaps even people.

Maybe it’s similar to a parent dropping their kid to school – they see how their kid is just one among so many, all of whose parents probably feel the same way about their kid as they do.

There are two possibilities, mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. The first – you accept that your flower is no different from the rest. The second – you tell yourself that it’s different.

If you go by the first, again you come across two options.

‘No’ thing Special

You could tell yourself that your flower is no different from the rest, and therefore just as worthless as the rest of them. This is the case for arguing that ‘nothing matters’, to remain indifferent.

Your rose is just one commodity in an assembly line, one among many – if anything happens to it, you can get a replacement the same day. The sun is just a star, no different from the billions of others in the universe.

You could even try extending the same reasoning to humans. It’s nice to argue otherwise, that all of us are unique and irreplaceable, but do things really work that way? If you drop dead today, your employer would send out an application for your replacement tomorrow, perhaps your spouse might take longer to find a replacement, and if you’re really lucky, then maybe someone would occasionally recall you existed after a couple of years.

(Perhaps a reminder – no one is indispensable, and the world will always go on the way it has. Both a lesson for individual humility and a reminder that the world is resilient enough to withstand any loss)

It’s easy to feel this way, probably more so in a world of astronomical numbers with billions of nearly every sort of thing – humans, animals, plants, planets. The sheer scale kills individuality; to understand anything you can’t go into specific instances, or individuals. You have to resort to generalizations – large scale commonalities, or commodification (a commodity being identical to other products of that type).

You can’t really ‘stand out’ because the individual is submerged in an ocean, with maybe a couple of exceptions.

‘Every’ thing Special

The other option here is you tell yourself that your flower is no different from the rest, and therefore just as precious as the rest of them.

This is the case for arguing that ‘everything matters’, to remain engaged with everything equally, not even differentiating between ‘your’ rose and ‘other’ roses. You’d then love not just ‘your’ rose, but every rose. Not just your dog, but every dog.

In fact, the distinction between ‘your’ and ‘other’ would itself fade. Interestingly enough, I think this is similar to the idea of ‘enlightenment’, or more precisely, freedom from entanglement, freedom from karma, in a book Karma by Sadhguru.

Though my knowledge of this is tenuous at best, I like to think this is what Advaita Vedanta or ‘non-dualism’ is about. The distinction between ‘Atman’, the individual consciousness (here – ‘your’ rose) , and ‘Brahman’, the universal consciousness (here – the universe’s roses) is extinguished, and hence there is no duality, everything is one – yet you don’t withdraw into indifference while accepting that.

‘One’ Thing Special

Both the above were paths you take when you believe that your rose is no different from the other roses – either equally worthless, or equally precious.

This is the left side of the figure.

But the alternative is that you might believe your rose is different from every other rose, as the Little Prince did. This is the right side of the figure.

And then you probably think it means more than every other rose – if you thought it different but worse, you’d abandon it for any other.

Which leads back to the same question. Just what is so special about your flower?

I could find a million of them, just as pretty or maybe even more so. Your flower is worthless, a commodity no different from others of the same type, easily replaceable.

Objectively, from the point of view of an unbiased observer, this is absolutely right. But this isn’t Newtonian physics, where the (inertial) frame of reference (who observes) shouldn’t affect fundamental properties (what is observed).

One Little Flower

This is a story about a Little Prince and a flower.

If you love one little flower, and if that little flower lives on one tiny planet among all the billions of planets in the Universe, then you might find that you can’t help but love all the planets because on one tiny planet among them somewhere, your little flower is there.

And every time you look up and see the stars, you’ll remember that somewhere there, on one of them, is your flower. And because of that, all the stars look beautiful to you, and just looking at them is enough to make you happy.

Which means that if you have just one thing – whatever it is, a pursuit or a thing or a person – that means a lot to you then maybe that is more than enough. Everything, perhaps life itself or the entire world becomes beautiful to you and worth it because somewhere there is your flower.

And anywhere you go and any time things go downhill, wherever you look you’ll see a world in some corner of which your flower is.

A single blossom of a single tiny flower then is enough to light up a universe.


When you tame a flower, it’s no longer just a flower, but your flower.

All the flowers in the world put together would not match up to it – because they’re just random flowers to you. Yours is different because you’ve tamed it – which means you’ve ‘established ties’.

Taming requires effort, it is investment.

More than talking about how much it means to you, taming is about what you’ve done for it, the time and energy you’ve ‘wasted’ (or given up, if you don’t like that word) for it.

There are two things about taming, though.

One is that it’s a relation between two parties; to anyone else, your flower is just a flower, because he’s not tamed it. So don’t expect others to care, or even appreciate what a hobby, a pet, a person or a possession means to you – they can’t.

At most, if they’re empathetic, they can understand how it might feel, especially if they have a similar connection to something else they’ve tamed, but they won’t be able to know what that means to you. A dog lover might appreciate how and why another dog lover loves his pet dog, but I don’t think he could fathom the relationship for that particular dog because he’s not tamed it – it’s still just a dog to him, and even though he probably loves dogs, it’s not his dog.

Two Way

The more important thing about taming though, is that it works both ways – it’s a two way relationship. Every thing that you tame tames you.

If you’ve tamed your cat, it might love you, recognize you, and treat you differently from every other human it encounters. Just as you would treat it differently from every other cat you see.

Every thing that tames you gives you some value, and that gives you happiness – else it couldn’t have tamed you, and you probably wouldn’t have let it tame you. Unless you’ve made a mistake.

But every thing that tames you takes away something as well. I’m not sure what exactly it takes away, but I think you can call them freedom and indifference – the two most fundamental things about taming.

Freedom – because taming is neither fair-weather friendship nor mere acquaintanceship.

It’s not fair weather friendship where you make time or remember your flower when you need it or when it suits you – that’s just convenience.

It’s not acquaintanceship where you check up on your flower as a social nicety, to make it feel good – that’s just co-existence, things or people you know but don’t care about.

Taming is investment: time, energy, thought, emotion – life.

Your flower is never too far from your mind, for the sake of your flower you do things that others wouldn’t do for your flower and that you wouldn’t do for any other flower. So it’s more than acquaintanceship.

Even when times aren’t great you still look after your flower, even if it seems to make your life harder – it’s not about convenience.

So taming means that you give up a lot – just like when you invest, you ‘give up’ money to buy shares, and in return you get something you value more than the money. But markets go through bad times too, and perhaps there are periods when taming might hurt you more than it helps you. Neither do all investors make profits – a lot of people might tame something only to end up regretting it.

And perhaps even more than freedom, taming means a farewell to indifference.

Of the trillions of things in the world, nearly all are those whose existence of which you will be unaware when you check out of the universe. Of the handful of which you’ll know about, nearly all will be those which you won’t care too much about.

And of the tiny few that remain, there will be some that tame you. For better or worse, you can no longer be indifferent to them now.

When you give up indifference, you expose yourself to good and bad. If you tame your pet and your pet tames you, you might have a lot of good times together, but you also open yourself to sorrows – the usual ‘market’ risk when you invest heavily in anything.

If the flower you’ve tamed withers away, all the stars will for you be darkened.

The same flower which by its mere existence can light up a universe can by its demise also darken it.

Is Taming Worth It?

A digression, but what options do you have in the face of such market risk, if taming something can bring you more sorrow than joy?

The first – simply don’t invest in anything. Put everything in a fixed deposit. You can never lose money if you never risk it, though of course you gain nothing beyond the safest returns either. Make no deep friendships, no obsessive interests – and you’ll never face the pain of separation.

The other option – diversify heavily. Invest small amounts in many things – be interested in everything and committed to nothing. Diversification reduces risk; even if some eggs in your basket are destroyed, you’re unlikely to get wiped out.

If that was all, everyone would diversify, but you can’t have the good without the bad. Diversification reduces extreme losses but it does the same to gains; one of your stocks might double (a 100% rise) overnight, but if it’s just 10% of your portfolio, your overall gain is 10%, not 100% – 10 times less.

So if you have a hundred friends, you’re unlikely to mind much if you lose a couple of them, but can you really be close to all of them?

The last is when you tame a few things; when you invest heavily in them. They’ll give you a lot, but they’ll take a lot as well.

Which is perhaps as it should be; you can’t have peaks without troughs.

You might risk getting wiped out completely if the market tanks, if you’ve invested your entire sense of worth in something or someone and you lose it.

Though I don’t think there’s anything in the world that’s worth putting your entire self at stake for. Life always goes on, and the world never ends – the world doesn’t even notice. Any setback – maybe a failure in an examination or getting fired from work – today it looks gigantic, overwhelming.

Separate yourself with time – look ahead a few months, a year, five years – you’re not even going to remember it, and you’ll wonder why you made such a big fuss about it. When you do this with past events you’ve already gone through you get a feel of it; now it’s easier to extrapolate it to whatever you’re currently going through.

A disclaimer though – perhaps there are things worth staking yourself for, and I’ve just never found any. Something worth thinking about anyway.

There’s another option too here – to have your cake and eat it too, to have peaks without troughs. To take all the positives from your tamed flower and to reject the negatives. It would be like loving your dog deeply but moving on unfazed after his demise rather than mourning.

You might ask to what extent this is possible, or if it’s just ideal theory, good to preach but nothing more. If it’s that easy to move on you might wonder if you ever really cared much – maybe you were just indifferent.

And even if it’s possible, is it desirable? Taking only the good might not actually be ‘good’, would you miss out if you only visited peaks? Might there not be good in the ‘bad’, something to gain even from valleys and troughs?

Being Tamed

It’s very easy to get lost in matters of consequence that are inconsequential to you personally.

The Little Prince visits six planets before Earth, meeting a lonely king who loves giving orders for the sake of it, a man raising his hat in a mock bow to imaginary applause, a drunkard constantly drinking and immediately regretting it, a businessman counting and claiming the stars, a lamplighter switching on and off a lamplight without a break, and a geographer sitting at his desk with a mound of paper.

You can be tamed by authority and status. A king who sees people only as ‘subjects’, who tries to maintain a fig leaf of ‘control’ and superiority, even if it’s a charade you play to convince yourself.

It can happen even to good people, like a king who never gives an order that can’t be obeyed. In fact, perhaps it’s the most reasonable people who can go to extraordinary lengths to save face and live up a charade – someone unreasonable wouldn’t be able to accommodate others so long.

Status – which is others’ opinion of you – can tame you easily, when you do things only for their validation and admiration. Your audience tames you because you have to constantly put up a show since their applause is what you crave, like a conceited man, who, desperate to be admired, bows to an imaginary audience. You ‘put on a show’ because you behave differently in front of them and alone – one is a performance where you can’t let the mask slip, being someone you have to consciously pretend to be.

It’s even easier to be tamed by instant gratification, like a tippler drowning his sorrows in drink and immediately regretting it. That’s an inability to delay gratification, to let immediate consequences rule over long-term ones. To knowingly write off the future for the present – not because you want to, but because you can’t withhold from it.

Possessions tame when you’re owned by the things you own. Taming something should add to the value of that and to you, not like a businessman counting the stars. The stars themselves offer him no benefit, neither directly or indirectly – at least an asset like a car or phone gives you value.

This isn’t an attack on wealth – wealth offers you plenty of benefits like financial freedom, insurance against illness and calamity. It’s about possessions without any value to you – meaning you wouldn’t notice their loss; if they were gone you would be as you were before.

Nor is the businessman of any use to the stars either. They aren’t improved by their relationship with him, while a pet might be by its relation to its tamer.

Perhaps the most dangerous is to be tamed by duty. That’s because it dresses up as virtue and self-righteousness; the rest appear to be value-neutral, if not actual vices. No wonder the Little Prince admired it for its selflessness.

Obsession with duty above all else. Adherence to the process becomes an end to itself. Going through meaningless processes as a formality, despite the fact they were designed in and for a completely different context. Forgetting that men are not made for rules, rules are made for men.

It’s like a lamplighter whose job it was to switch on a lamp at sunset, and switch it off at sunrise, twice a day. But when his planet began spinning faster and completing a rotation every minute, he was doing this over a thousand times daily – because that’s what his job description asked him to, even if it had zero utility for anyone, and was in fact detrimental to him.

Another is being tamed by self-importance, by an unwillingness to get one’s hands dirty, a disdain for real work, considering it beneath one’s station. Like a geographer who won’t move his ass and expects every detail about the terrain to be brought to him by an army of explorers.

Are any of these ‘wrong’ though? Not objectively at least, because if freedom means anything, then it means the freedom to choose what to care about, and nothing’s more annoying or unbearable than a supercilious ‘wise man’ telling you what you should care about.

But at an individual level, if what you tame makes your life worse than what it is without it, then it’s probably the wrong thing for you.

A Flower

More than anything else, The Little Prince is about this. That anything can be a matter of consequence if you want it to be.

“If some one loves a flower, of which just one single blossom grows in all the millions and millions of stars, it is enough to make him happy just to look at the stars. He can say to himself, ‘Somewhere, my flower is there…’ But if the sheep eats the flower, in one moment all his stars will be darkened… And you think that is not important!”

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

No matter how useless it is to the rest of the world.

“The flowers have been growing thorns for millions of years. For millions of years the sheep have been eating them just the same. And is it not a matter of consequence to try to understand why the flowers go to so much trouble to grow thorns which are never of any use to them? Is the warfare between the sheep and the flowers not important? Is this not of more consequence than a fat red-faced gentleman’s sums? And if I know– I, myself– one flower which is unique in the world, which grows nowhere but on my planet, but which one little sheep can destroy in a single bite some morning, without even noticing what he is doing — Oh! You think that is not important!”

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Just as things that are of consequence to others might mean nothing to you.

Here, then, is a great mystery. For you who also love the little prince, and for me, nothing in the universe can be the same if somewhere, we do not know where, a sheep that we never saw has– yes or no?– eaten a rose…
Look up at the sky. Ask yourselves: is it yes or no? Has the sheep eaten the flower? And you will see how everything changes… And no grown-up will ever understand that this is a matter of so much importance!

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I’d think (and somewhere, probably do think) that someone must be crazy to care so much about a sheep eating a rose, neither of which he has ever seen.

But maybe, if you care about that, and if you look up at the sky, it matters more than anything in the world.

If the sheep has eaten the rose, then all the stars will for you be darkened, and if it hasn’t, then every time you look at the stars you will remember that your flower is there on one of them.

Whatever you tame is a matter of consequence for you.

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